American III: Solitary Man (American Recordings)
With this album, Johnny Cash's career comes full circle, from the early rebellious rockabilly to the grand old man of the grooves. In Solitary Man he has segued to a grandfatherly presence with an enriched worldview. But the journey has also taken some of the early, leaner-and-meaner "attitude" off his voice and replaced it with a newfound vulnerability, kind of an Uncle Johnny flavoring that makes his stunning remake of "That Lucky Old Sun" and another tune, the whimsical "Nobody," really shine.
Coarse and sometimes hoarse, his voice rides the lyrics perfectly in the downer dirge "I See A Darkness." Johnny has identified with the plight of prisoners ever since "Folsom Prison Blues," and here a death-row lament called "The Mercy Seat" may quite simply stand as the most powerful song he's ever recorded. A chilling tale of an inmate dying in the electric chair, it blends the singer and the production into a drama so vivid that you can almost feel the sizzle of electricity and smell the burning flesh.
There's a sad splendor watching icons age. And two of the greatest are Johnny Cash and boxer Muhammad Ali. But whether they're lighting the Olympic torch with a shaking hand, as Ali did in 1996, or singing with a trembling voice, they're still our champions, our heroes. And we can't get enough of them.
-- Gerry Wood